Agencies have a long way to go to reach data-centricity

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Agencies finally are getting their heads around how best to meet the requirements in the White House’s open data policy from May 2013.

Several agencies realize what’s needed is a combination of policy and action.

The Office of Management and Budget laid out 21 different requirements in the May 2013 memo — commonly known as M- 13-13.

And over the last 18 months, agencies have been trying to figure how best to implement the memo’s requirements.

Take the Agriculture Department. It is focusing on how best to get data to the public, while also figuring out internal governance procedures.

“We’ve basically stood up three boards. We stood up the open data council, which oversees the implementation of the policy. We’ve stood up the open data working group, which yours truly chairs, and we do the day-to-day operations,” said Bobby Jones, USDA’s acting chief data officer and deputy CIO for policy and planning, during a panel discussion Thursday sponsored by the AFCEA Bethesda, Maryland chapter. “We go out and talk to the data owners, explaining to them the importance of getting the data out to the American people, and how it’s going to benefit the USDA. It helps us to be better stewards of the American tax dollars by providing data that is going to spark innovation and entrepreneurialship in the public.”

USDA also has brought in GovLab, a non-profit, to create a focus group or discussion on data usage with state, local, federal government entities and those in the private sector. Jones said the goal is to figure out how best the agency can provide data to help with current and future projects.

Jones said USDA will develop a data management and an open data policy in 2015. The data management policy will focus on standard, data cleansing and ownership issues. The open data policy will try to address USDA’s approach to releasing data to the public.

One of the few CDOs

The Transportation Department is ahead of USDA, but like most agencies still has plenty of work to do.

Dan Morgan, DoT’s chief data officer (CDO), said there is the opportunity to do more and get information faster if the agency can ease the path to find and use the data.

“I need to be able to generate a framework for action,” Morgan said. “Quality means different things to different data sets. If you want to be the authoritative, trusted data source then your standard of quality is higher than if you’re a good information source or just another database of conference reservations. We need to be smart about how we do that. Quality matters differently in the statistical world, in the research world, in the mission world, and in the administrative world. They are all the same measures, but how you manage that quality differs based on the kind of application and how authoritative and trusted it needs to be in your agency. We are trying to put the framework in place to say what that is and give people the tools to actually measure and manage quality, and be able to actually see whether or not their data set is hitting those standards.”

He said the tools are key because DoT or OMB or the public can’t expect the program folks to release data or use information to make decisions without the software and dashboards to help the data make sense.

The recognition of the value and importance of data is far from new. For the last five or more years, agencies have focused on securing, sharing, analyzing, managing and collecting information. But the chief data officer is an emerging role across government. DoT was one of the first agencies to hire a CDO. The departments of Energy and Commerce are in the final stages of hiring a CDO, and USDA’s Jones is an acting CDO, which means he or someone will be permanent in the near future.

What’s unclear is how will the CDO’s role differentiate from the chief information officer.

This issue becomes more important as agencies hand off the day-to-day management of commodity IT services and systems, such as email, collaboration, data centers and even human resources and financial management systems.

Morgan said his role centers around three tracks: govern, engage and enable.

“Govern is really that information management, eat your vegetables kind of stuff that we need to put a bigger focus on. We are putting together common practices to have all of the components that are part of DoT have products about information management that actually talk to each other,” he said. “The second piece of engagement is really around not only external engagement which the open data policy espouses, we have a history and a real business reason to be open and transparent with the American people. We need to appreciate that and just do better at that. There’s a lot of coaching and then really bringing people to understand how newer folks who are building interesting Web-based applications are applying our data, and what that means for the way we produce and release that data to the public.”

Around enable, Morgan said the goal is to create a safe space for DoT employees to try new technologies.

He said he wants to aggregate the risk at his level so there isn’t a fragmented approach to data analytics and the use of these tools.

At USDA, Jones said as acting CDO, he’s trying to help the agency deal with an assortment of issues, including data cleansing and meeting all the requirements outlined in OMB’s policy.

Jones said USDA is grappling with several of those issues.

“We have a requirement every quarter to report to OMB our top five data users. It’s very difficult to do because there’s a lot of things that go into determining the top five. I must be honest with you, we report various agencies, organizations, industry that we know are using our data. Now that top five, we don’t really have a way to gauge that yet,” he said. “I would like to work closer with industry, academia and other organizations to come up with a mechanism for gauging data usage.”

Donna Roy, the executive director of the Homeland Security Department’s Information Sharing Environment Office, said her offices relies on usage metrics including who uses the data, how often they use it, what parts of the data are used the most and what challenges do customers have in using the data?

But DHS is probably further along than most agencies when it comes to using data, specifically terrorism related data.

Roy said DHS has four major data-centric programs, including the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN) and the Identity Credentialing and Access Management (ICAM).

DHS recently launched a new data effort as well.

“A program called the Data Framework is the most exciting thing we are doing at the department. The Data Framework is the place where we will put our most highly valued data assets into an environment — the unclassified level and the classified level &mash; to be able to better use our data against the current counter terrorism threat facing this country today, which is evolving very quickly,” Roy said. “The Data Framework, while new, is one of the secretary’s highest priorities. We are getting a lot of focus, a lot of energy and a lot of sponsorship around the Data Framework.”

She said in many respects, the data framework is the culmination of much of the work she and DHS have been doing over the last six or seven years.

The Data Framework is part of how DHS is moving highly valued data sets into what Roy called a “data lake,” which tags the information with access controls, ownership and other meta data, and makes it accessible to the right people at the right time.

Another example of the impact of data sharing comes from DoT.

Morgan said Transportation piloted putting the safety records of bus operators on the Web as a way to inform and maybe influence people on the safety records of these companies, He said it was such as huge success, the Federal Motor Safety Carrier Administration made all of its public data available through a Web service.

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